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From Scotland With Force: Reflections On Connery‘s Bond Era

In anticipation of ‘No Time To Die,’ we reflect on Sean Connery’s years as James Bond, how he shaped the character into a cultural icon, and what to make of the films that haven’t aged as well.
From Russia With Love
By  and  · Published on March 2nd, 2020

The name’s Bond. Bondathon. With 24 official James Bond films to conquer before ‘No Time To Die’ hits theaters, Bond fan Anna Swanson and Bond newbie Meg Shields are diving deep on 007. Martinis shaken and beluga caviar in hand, the Double Take duo are making their way through the Bond corpus by era, so hang up your hats and pay attention.

There’s a subtle scent of vodka and gunpowder in the air, middle-aged British men are discovering who Billie Eilish is, and Daniel Craig is psyching himself up for a press tour. This can only mean one thing: there’s a new James Bond movie on the horizon. The upcoming No Time To Die will be Bond’s return to the big screen after an almost five-year absence. To mark this momentous occasion, we here at Film School Rejects knew that a simple ranking listicle just wouldn’t cut it.

Instead, we — Meg Shields and Anna Swanson — are undertaking a more lengthy endeavor. We will be watching all 24 official Bond movies and cataloging our assessments of each actor’s time spent as the eponymous super-spy. We’ve put together a few questions that will help us unpack our takes on the first set of films. While Anna was raised in the church of Bond by parents who wouldn’t have had it any other way, Meg is more familiar with Austin Powers (you do the math on that one). This is to say that whether you’ve come to this column looking for the opinion of a seasoned fan or a fresh-eyed inductee, we can help.

We’re kicking things off with Sean Connery, the gruff Scotsman who helped turn James Bond into a cultural icon. But how do his films hold up, what are the highlights, and how do two viewers with vastly different levels of familiarity with Bond find common ground? These are the questions we’re eager to dive into. But first, for those who didn’t spend the weekend binge-watching, a reminder of what goes down in Connery’s six outings as Bond. Take a shot every time Blofeld plays keep-away with nuclear weapons.


What did you expect? What surprised you?

Bond Beginner
I may be ignorant of the cinematic works of Mr. James Herbert Bond, but 007’s undeniable presence within the collective consciousness has not eluded me. I have a passing knowledge of the functional alcoholism and the womanizing; the fantastic fashion and the punny quips; the suggestively-named lady friends, and the would-be world-dominating villains. James Bond and the world he inhabits are iconic (a fact perhaps especially true of these early Connery entries). But look: my knowledge of Bond is shallow. At most, I was expecting a charming man in a suit to gamble, drink, and fuck his way through international intrigue, saving the world with his fists. All to say: my familiarity with Bond going into this marathon was exclusively superficial; tropes and ticks and general suspicion that this macho man of mystery wouldn’t be my type. Though, in all fairness, I’d never really given him a fair shot. More on that later.

Because I just watched all six of these films for the first time, I have plenty to be surprised about. One of the things that immediately caught me off guard was the travelogue format. Whether it’s Japan, Turkey, or Jamaica (it’s usually Jamaica), the Bond films are largely centered around a charming, if woefully dated curiosity with The International. Bond fans are probably laughing at me, but I swear, I had no idea. Another surprise: while I knew that Bond, uh, fucks, I don’t think I was fully prepared for the no-holds-barred horniness of the 1960s. As if anyone can be prepared for that. I also was not ready for the real star of the show: production designer Ken Adam. The Connery-era Bond films look fantastic: they’re clean and gaudy; colorful and minimalistic; of a time and timeless. These sets belong in a museum, and, for all I know, some of them probably are. If you have an appreciation for a good shag carpet, you’ve come to the right franchise. There’s a pun in there somewhere.

Bond Veteran
I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve seen Dr. No and somehow my takeaway is still astonishment at just how low-budget the film was. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a scrappy thriller that I firmly believe holds up, but it’s also a charming reminder of the franchise’s humble origins. Many a corner was cut along the way, but for the most part, the film came together impressively well. The MVP of these early films is and always will be production designer Ken Adam, who constructed ingenious sets and made a meal out of the limited resources available to him. As much as I know to expect this, it’s always a treat to rediscover the details that make this such a rich film worth appreciating.

As far as surprises, I went into this viewing having a clear idea of how I felt about Connery: I like half his movies. I looked forward to the first three — all of them undeniable classics — and was less than jazzed about the last three. Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and Goldfinger are movies I know well and have revisited countless times. Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, and Diamonds Are Forever aren’t my favorites, needless to say. There’s many a Bond movie that I will love despite its flaws (Meg can attest to this), but these three have always felt like the worst of both worlds: neither good enough to be classics nor bad enough to be straight up campy delights.

I’ll admit this opinion was underselling You Only Live Twice. Maybe I was just in a better mood this watch; maybe enough time had passed for me to look at it with new eyes; maybe it just clicked for whatever reason. I enjoyed it a lot more than expected. I still don’t prefer it to any of the first three Connery movies, and I wrestle with my feelings about parts of it, but it definitely bumped up a few spots in my ranking this time around. Let this be a testament to the power of a revisit. I’m glad I gave it another shot.

Diamonds Are Forever Sexism

Do these films hold up?

Bond Beginner
There are two ways I want to answer this question. The first has to do with the inevitable cringe of films made in the 1960s, and all the sexual assault and casual racism that comes with that (especially when you’re dealing with an alcoholic super-spy whose preferred espionage strategy is “I fucked my way into this mess, and I’ll fuck my way out”). As far as what you can take and what you can leave, tolerance for Bond’s sexual aggression is the main barrier for entry. It was a different time, and that grants some leniency. But the more egregious moments can be hard to hand-wave and I’d be lying if I said they weren’t distracting, especially without the buffer of nostalgia.

The second way I want to approach this question is broader. Let me use a frame of reference that I’m more familiar with. In Mission: Impossible, even when the odds are against him, we know that Ethan Hunt, like Bond, is going to figure out how to save the world and that he’s going to be fine. The turn of the screw—that I would argue Bond fails to match—is that Ethan cares about people. And the threat of losing them is what gives his heroic shenanigans emotional depth. From what I’ve seen in these Connery films, Bond does not actually care about other people. He may jest and flirt, but ultimately he treats his allies, flings, and even his colleagues like they’re disposable.

Let’s indulge the take that “people die in Bond’s line of work, so not caring about them is his survival strategy.” As far as the Connery films are concerned, that’s an enormously generous reach. And, more to the point, narratively, that take is far more boring than it is cool. Case in point: to me, no contest, From Russia With Love is the best of these films. And it got a shit load of points by having something the others didn’t: diplomatic stakes underpinned by emotional ones. Bond’s feelings for Tatiana have a weightiness that isn’t present in his relationships with any of the other women of the Connery era (except maybe Moneypenny, depending on how you spin it). You get the sense that his relationship with Tatiana is more than just a matter of convenience, and it makes the surrounding intrigue and action setpieces all that more involving.

I suspect I’m fighting a losing battle by bemoaning Bond’s lack of meaningful relationships. But it can’t be helped. I’m not saying that Bond needs to be sanitized or saved. I enjoy a power-abusing, beaten-down civil servant as much as the next girl. But I find myself wishing the films would comment on how much of a maniac he is. So far, Felix, the CIA boy is the only one out here acknowledging Bond’s “habits,” albeit with a marked degree of “that’s our boy!” Then again, maybe them’s the 60s.

Bond Veteran
I admit I can’t look at the Bond movies I love with total objectivity, so for me, the first three Connery films hold up. There are some things that I know wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) exist in a movie today, but I love these movies for what they are, warts and all. Where this conversation gets tricky is around the latter three, the ones that I don’t watch with rose-colored glasses.

I’ve always said that I’ll take a bad Bond movie over a good anything else, but Thunderball really throws a wrench in that claim. It’s not that it has a bad plot; the narrative is good enough that I quite enjoy the not-a-remake unofficial entry, Never Say Never Again. But, my god, is this version unbearably slow. I get that at the time the underwater scenes were cool and new but now it feels like watching paint dry. If I could cut Thunderball down to a cool 72 minutes by removing the glacially paced underwater sequences, then maybe I’d enjoy this movie more. As it is, the film is so slow that I feel my brain go into screensaver mode the second Bond sinks below sea-level.

I also tend to not hold any misogynistic scenes against films made in the 60s, because it was, y’know, the 60s. But it sure would have been nice if Bond’s aggression had been dialed back so that it wasn’t permanently at 11 in this movie.

Speaking of a film being of its moment, it’s impossible to look past the racism of You Only Live Twice and it’s a damn shame that this spoils some of the better moments in Connery’s fifth outing. The Bond movies always served travelogue purposes and here the film apparently seeks to illustrate Japan’s cultural heritage by putting every stereotype on display. Some of it is not at all done with malicious intentions; I do believe that there is a sincere interest in offering audiences back home a glimpse of a culture and history different to their own. But there are enough jokes at the expense of the Japanese characters that, even when understood as a product of its time, leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

But I still find myself unable to throw it all away. There are some really brilliant moments in this film. The villainous scheme of lowering poison into someone’s sleeping mouth via string is genuinely ingenious. The hollowed-out volcano lair is god-level in addition to being ripe for parody. I also will never turn down any opportunity to see Q in the field and his bringing of Little Nellie to Bond doesn’t disappoint. I can’t claim that You Only Live Twice is perfect — far from it — but it has its moments. And at least it takes place on dry land.

And then there’s Diamonds Are Forever. I still don’t quite know what to make of it. When people say this is their least favorite Bond movie, I get it. It’s a confoundingly weird film with a narrative all over the place, the franchise’s most annoying Bond girl in the form of Tiffany Case, and queer-coded henchmen who are treated with all the care of a sledgehammer to the face. It’s a bad movie. And yet…

Maybe it being so bad is what prevents it from ranking last for me. There’s more skilled assemblage on display in my personal least favorite, Thunderball, but its sluggish pace makes it more of a chore than this campy, bonkers, absolutely terrible movie. Diamonds Are Forever is bad in such a way that I am actively paying attention to all of its confounding choices. This means I’m not bored. If that’s my greatest takeaway, then so be it. Could always be worse.

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Anna Swanson is a Senior Contributor who hails from Toronto. She can usually be found at the nearest rep screening of a Brian De Palma film.